These days, it takes some effort to remember that there are ways of designing public spaces without involving a disused elevated railway. As inspiring as the High Line as a park is, the High Line as a meme risks becoming a caricature of itself—a giant landscaped Band-Aid slapped over a pox of urban ills. Does a postindustrial park offer as much value if, say, it must function as a destination in its own right, without also offering a useful path through the city, as the High Line does?
San Francisco has its share of High Line–inspired ideas (some even win competitions), but why copy New York when the city has those crazy hills and an actually accessible waterfront? Manhattan may be an island, but to a parched pedestrian in midsummer it might as well be Kansas. And LA? They can keep their Hyperloop! To usher San Francisco into the 21st century, planners would do well to raid their own archives.
A walk through the latest exhibition at the University of California-Berkeley's Environmental Design Archives reveals that so many of today's trendy concepts—urban farming, renewable-powered infrastructure, and even the High Line, in proto form—were alive and well in the '90s. On view through November 8 at the college's Wurster Hall gallery, "Unbuilt San Francisco: Ambition and Imagination" offers a mini-survey of unrealized projects, from Renzo Piano's failed sextet of superskinny towers to yet another 1930s proposal by Bernard Maybeck to build a waterfall at Twin Peaks (this one with windmills!).
Twin Peaks with Pools, Windmills, and a Second Bay Bridge (1934), by Bernard Maybeck. Image courtesy Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley
Ernest Born's 1969 plan for Alcatraz Island called for housing, cultural facilities, and a convention hotel, plus a 400-foot-high plume of water, which Born considered a West Coast counterpoint to the Statue of Liberty. Image courtesy the Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley
The show completes this fall's series of "Unbuilt" exhibitions, which have rolled out in venues across the Bay Area over the past several weeks as part of the 10th annual Architecture and the City festival. (You can read up on the other shows here, here, and here, and see them virtually through this handy app by the Museum of the Phantom City.) At Berkeley, curators John King, the San Francisco Chronicle's urban design critic, and Waverly Lowell, curator of the Environmental Design Archives, put together an ambitious and imaginative look at more than a century of unbuilt projects.
Much as the High Line arose as an idiosyncratic solution for an idiosyncratic place, the most compelling proposals in this show ask the public to engage with their city in delightfully unorthodox ways. Picture yourself punting your way through a canal as you assess the produce growing on a floating urban farm. Consider the dizzying, almost archeological pleasure of climbing atop a fragment of the old Embarcadero Freeway to find a view of the bay once available only to motorists. Imagine the ruins of an oceanfront bathhouse transformed into a new kind of public space where beach-goers can observe the might of renewable-power generation the way our grandparents used to go out to watch the planes.
Bay Farms, a 1993 concept for floating urban agriculture on San Francisco Bay, by Jill Stoner with Jeff Day, Charles Duncan, E. B. Min, Jessica Rothchild, and James Zack. Rendering courtesy Eduardo Pintos and Ibone Santiago
On their own, floating architecture and urban farming are compelling ideas. Together, they alchemize into architectural Disneyland, as we've seen in one fantastical rendering after another.
What's awesome about Bay Farms is its relative restraint. The proposal, from a College of Environmental Design team led by professor Jill Stoner, was part of a 1993 ideas competition that asked participants to re-imagine the waterfront as a collective experience.
Stoner and her colleagues sent a canal through the path of the old Embarcadero Freeway and ran footbridges over the water at cross streets. Barges covered in topsoil punctuate the spaces between piers, attended by people in water taxis. None of this adds up to efficient food production, of course, but the proposal underscores the adjustment in logic and logistics that importing a rural program into an urban space requires.
Vegetated States: Growth between Booms (2008) depicts an interim use for a vacant lot during the economic downturn. This temporary park, by Sarah Kuehl and Adam Greenspan (with Kennerly Architecture & Planning), imagines a natural-industrial landscape where vines grow on a toppled construction crane. It's a High Line for birds. Rendering courtesy EinwillerKuehl
A model of Freeway Fragment Park, a 1991 proposal by Kuth/Ranieri Architects to preserve a portion of the Embarcadero Freeway as an urban park.
In 1991, when the earthquake-damaged Embarcadero Freeway was slated for demolition, architects Liz Ranieri and Byron Kuth became fascinated with the idea of leaving a portion of the roadway standing. Instead of total erasure, they were interested in preserving a fragment as an archeological chunk of the city's history and a reminder of past planning mistakes.
As a totally huge structure, the double-decker freeway would offer pedestrians an unfamiliar, slightly off-kilter experience of the city. With no vehicle to box them in, freeway climbers could enjoy a formerly racy curve of roadway from a speed of zero miles per hour. The architects envisioned a lookout point with benches at the top level and a redwood tree springing up through a hole carved in the center of the deck.
The fragment was both an oasis and something slightly postapocalyptic (not to mention the most honest freeway park we've yet seen). It was also way ahead of its time. The architects posted flyers on telephone poles and stated their case in a letter to the Chronicle, which the paper did not publish. "All our friends thought we were crazy," recalls Ranieri.
Sutro Baths: A New Public Room (1991), by Tanner, Leddy, Maytum, Stacy. Images courtesy Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects
The same year, for a show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art called "In the Spirit of Modernism," Tanner, Leddy, Maytum, Stacy envisioned a new kind of public space that imbued modern design with 19th-century-style aspirations for a monumental place that belongs to everyone.
"In the past, civic unity was manifested architecturally in great public rooms which focused the vitality of the city and became spiritual, social and cultural centers for the community," write the architects (who are now known as Leddy Maytum Stacy), citing historic places of worship as well as the grand train stations of 19th-century Europe. The modern equivalents of these spaces, they lament, are convention halls.
Fittingly, their chosen site is Sutro Baths, a formerly grand public space now in ruins. In its heyday, the bathhouse boasted seven indoor saltwater pools, a promenade, and a stage and seating for more than 5,000 people. (The baths closed in 1966, and a fire destroyed the building.)
In its revived form, the Sutro site would serve both as a public gathering space and a dramatic backdrop for the workings of an exposed desalination system and wind power. Under the bay's rolling fog and quick-to-change weather, a set of lightweight trusses that slope, antenna-like, down to the ocean would carry saltwater inland for treatment. The trusses would also serve as pedestrian bridges and provide structural support to a new gathering space build on top of the ruins. With saltwater pools, large floating stages for performances, and an ice rink, the new Sutro Baths would blend old-school recreation with modern meeting facilities. But the energy generation—an activity normally hidden from view—would remain the centerpiece, like an Earthwork that gives form to renewable power.
Top image courtesy Skidmore, Owings & Merrill